Beck Weathers had been left for dead, his wife had been informed that he was dead, and within a few hours he should have been dead. But somehow, he is still alive today.
His right arm is gone, amputated halfway between his wrist and his elbow. His left hand has no fingers left and resembles something more like a mitten than a hand. His nose has been entirely rebuilt. Yet, despite all that, Beck Weathers has no hard feelings about being left for dead on the summit of Mount Everest — not just once, but twice.
In the spring of 1996, Texas pathologist Beck Weathers joined a group of eight ambitious climbers hoping to make it to the top of Mount Everest. Weathers had been an avid climber for years and was on a mission to reach the “Seven Summits,” a mountaineering adventure involving summiting the tallest mountain on each continent. So far he had completed just one, a guided ascent of Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Everest was to be his second.
He was prepared to devote all of his energy into this climb, and push himself as far as he needed to. After all, he had nothing to lose; his wife, angered over his devotion to mountain climbing over her for the duration of their 20-year marriage, had threatened to leave him before. This time, she assured him that as soon as he returned from Everest their marriage was really going to be over.
So, Weathers decided to make it a good climb, throwing caution to the wind. However, this particular wind hovered at an average temperature of negative 21 degrees Fahrenheit and blew at speeds of up to 157 miles an hour. Nevertheless, he arrived ready to go at the base of the mountain on May 10, 1966.
Beck’s fateful expedition was headed up by veteran mountaineer Rob Hall. Hall was an experienced climber, hailing from New Zealand, who had formed an adventure climbing company after scaling each of the Seven Summits. Everest, in particular, he had summited five times. If he wasn’t worried about the trek, no one should be.
Eight climbers in all set out on that May morning. The weather was clear, and the team was upbeat. It was cold, but at the beginning, the 12-14 hour climb to the summit seemed like a breeze. Before long, however, Weathers and his crew would realize just how brutal the mountain could be.
Shortly before heading to Nepal, Weathers had undergone a routine surgery to correct his nearsightedness. The radial keratotomy, a precursor to LASIK, had effectively created tiny incisions in his corneas to change the shape for better sight. Unfortunately, the altitude further warped his still-recovering corneas, leaving him almost entirely blind once darkness fell.
When Hall discovered that Weathers could no longer see, he forbade him from continuing up the mountain, ordering him to remain on the side of the trail while he took the others to the top. When they circled back down, they would pick him up on their way.
Begrudgingly, Weathers agreed. As his seven teammates trekked up to the summit, he remained in place. Several other groups passed him on the way down, offering him a spot in their caravans, but he refused, waiting for Hall like he’d promised.
But Hall would never return.
Upon reaching the summit, one member of the team became too weak to continue. Refusing to abandon him, Hall chose to wait, ultimately succumbing to the cold and perishing on the slopes. To this day, his body remains frozen just below the South Summit.
Almost 10 hours passed before Weathers realized something was wrong, but as a loner on the side of the trail, he had no option but to wait until someone trekked past him again. Shortly after 5 p.m., a climber descended, telling Weathers that Hall had gotten stuck. Despite knowing he should accompany the climber down, he chose to wait for a member of his own team, who he’d heard was on his way down not far behind.
Mike Groom was Hall’s fellow team leader, a guide who had scaled Everest in the past and knew his way around. Taking Weathers with him, he and the weary stragglers who had once been his fearless team set out for their tents to settle down for the long, freezing night.
A storm had begun to brew on top of the mountain, covering the entire area in snow and reducing visibility to almost zero before they reached their camp. One climber said it was like being lost in a bottle of milk with white snow falling in an almost opaque sheet in every direction. The team, huddled together, almost walked off the side of the mountain as they looked for their tents.
Weathers lost a glove in the process and had begun to feel the effects of the high altitude and freezing temperatures. As his teammates huddled together to conserve heat, he stood up in the wind, holding his arms above him with his right hand frozen beyond recognition. He began screaming and shouting, saying he had it all figured out. Then, suddenly, a gust of wind blew him backward into the snow.
During the night, a Russian guide rescued the rest of his team but, upon taking one look at him, deemed Weathers beyond help. As is custom on the mountain people that die there are left there and Weathers was destined to become one of them.
The next morning, after the storm had passed, a Canadian doctor was sent up to retrieve Weathers and a Japanese woman from his team named Yasuko Namba who had also been left behind. After peeling a sheet of ice from her body, the doctor decided that Namba was beyond saving. When he saw Weathers, he was inclined to say the same.
His face was encrusted with ice, his jacket was open to the waist, and several of his limbs were stiff with cold. Frostbite was not far off. The doctor would later describe him as “being as close to death and still breathing” as any patient he had ever seen. Thus, Weathers was left for dead a second time.
However, he wasn’t dead. And though he was close, his body was inching further from death by the minute. By some miracle, Weathers awoke from his hypothermic coma around 4 p.m.
“I was so far gone in terms of not being connected to where I was,” he recalled. “There was a nice, warm, comfortable sense of being in my bed. It was really not unpleasant.”
He soon realized how wrong he was when he began to check his limbs. His right arm, he said, sounded like wood when banged against the ground. As realization dawned, a wave of adrenaline coursed through his body.
“This was not bed. This was not a dream,” he said. “This was real and I’m starting to think: I’m on the mountain but I don’t have a clue where. If I don’t get up, if I don’t stand, if I don’t start thinking about where I am and how to get out of there, then this is going to be over very quickly.”
Somehow, he gathered himself and made it down the mountain, stumbling on feet that felt like porcelain and had almost no feeling. As he entered a low-level camp, the climbers there were stunned. Though his face was blackened with frostbite and his limbs were likely never going to be the same again, Beck Weathers was walking and talking. As news of his survival made it back to base camp, further shock ensued.
Not only was Beck Weathers walking and talking, but it seemed he had come back from the dead. After the Canadian doctor had abandoned him, his wife had been informed that her husband had perished on his trek. Now, here he was, standing in front of them, broken but very much alive. Within hours the base camp technicians had alerted Kathmandu and were sending him to the hospital in a helicopter; it was the highest rescue mission ever completed.
His right arm, the fingers on his left hand, and several pieces of his feet had to be amputated, along with his nose. Miraculously, doctors were able to fashion him a new nose out of skin from his neck and his ear. Even more miraculously, they grew it on Weathers’ own forehead. Once it had vascularized, they put it in its rightful place.
“They told me this trip was going to cost me an arm and a leg,” he joked to his rescuers as they helped him down. “So far, I’ve gotten a little better deal.”
Today, Beck Weathers has retired from mountain climbing. Though he never climbed all Seven Summits, he still feels he came out on top. His wife, enraged that he had been abandoned, agreed not to divorce him and instead stayed by his side to care for him. In the end, his near-death experience saved his marriage. Though he came back a little less physically whole than he started, he claims that spiritually, he’s never been more together.